We’re Off To See the Bald Douche: The Goddess Reviews “Yellowbrickroad”

Like the endlessly resurrected Jason Voorhees, I return once again after a short break with apologies for another absence and an itchin’ for some more horror. The reasons for my brief hiatus this time were more cookbook emergencies (which now seem to have been ironed out), and a final push to get my next book, The Rochdale Poltergeist (co-authored with parapsychologist Steve Mera), ready for publication. Keep an eye out for it in the next couple of weeks!

Casting about for today’s blog subject, I was perusing the “best horror films” of particular years on IMDB, and since I’ve done a lot of old films and have gotten woefully behind on newer horror, I thought I’d look for recommendations about some decent, underappreciated flicks from the last few years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty much an old-school horror chick all the way, but I also don’t want to turn into one of those crotchety old farts who thinks that everything new is automatically a shit burrito topped with a hot vomit salsa, you feel me? So right there on someone-or-other’s “Best Horror Movies of 2010” list was a little movie called Yellowbrickroad, which I watched on Hulu but is also available on Netflix, I believe. And hot damn, did I get lucky when I stumbled across this one, because it’s really something of an undiscovered gem that really got under my skin in a way that few movies do.

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Even though it won best film at the New York City Horror Film Festival the year it was released, and even though it has gotten some really great and in-depth analysis (such as this review right here), it mystifyingly boasts only a two-star rating on IMDB, and some of the reviewers there REALLY seemed to hate it, with the main complaints being that the ending didn’t make any sense and that it wasn’t gory/violent/scary enough. That’s a fair charge, I suppose, and I will admit that if you’re more into big scares and splashy blood and guts, then yeah, you probably won’t find much to like here. Yellowbrickroad is a very cerebral, almost abstract, film, more concerned with exploring its psychological themes and unsettling the viewer with atmosphere than with traditional horror set-pieces. Though some reviews I read compared it to The Blair Witch Project, I think a far better comparison would be to a David Lynch film, what with its surrealist bent, its copious symbolism, its stubborn ambiguity about reality, its masterful use of sound as a definitive plot element, and its utilization of The Wizard of Oz as a constant referent (as Lynch did, of course, in Wild At Heart).

In brief, the plot centers around a mysterious happening in the town of Friar, New Hampshire in 1940. Almost all of the residents of this quaint little burg, after their zillionth viewing of The Wizard of Oz in the town’s dinky little movie theater, put on their best formal duds, gathered up their record albums, and wandered off into the woods, never to be seen alive again. Some of the bodies were recovered, having died of either exposure, apparent suicide, or murder, but some were never found. Cut to the present day, where husband-and-wife writers Teddy and Melissa Barnes are setting up a small expedition to hike the same trail as the townsfolk did in order to write a book about what might have happened to them. As you might imagine, shit starts to get weird pretty quickly.

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For a fan of smart, subtle horror, there is a great deal to admire in Yellowbrickroad. It is beautifully shot and edited, and is able to generate a palpable sense of dread and tension during its entire running time, even though the bulk of it takes place in broad daylight. I love the fact that the filmmakers chose not to use the easy out of filming most of it in the dark to make it “scarier.” Further, the way the film plays with expectations and reality is really well-done; it keeps the viewer off-kilter the entire time so that the viewer’s experience mirrors that of the increasingly lost and disoriented characters. I loved the sense of displacement that escalated as the story progressed, the sense that time and space was breaking down in parallel with the characters’ mental states.

In addition, all the characters are likable and real, and we get to know them in brief strokes, with very little bullshit; most of the character development is subtle and streamlined to a line or two of dialogue. There are some funny moments (for instance, when the team’s GPS first starts to go tits-up), but these feel spontaneous and believable, and not shoehorned in as “relief” from the horror. Lastly, there is comparatively little violence and gore shown onscreen, making the few times when violence does occur intensely shocking and affecting, particularly one scene (those of you who have seen it will know what I’m talking about) that comes almost completely out of the blue and shakes the viewer as much as it does the characters.

In my opinion, the best thing about Yellowbrickroad, and the thing that seems to have caused the most contention among those who have seen it, is its ambiguity. How much of this journey is real? How much of it is imagined? Is it a dream, or a mass hallucination? Is there some supernatural force leading these characters to their destinies, or something dark inside themselves that results in their destruction? It is here where the Wizard of Oz touchstones become all the more relevant, particularly its theme of journeys ending where they began, though with perhaps a greater understanding of oneself picked up along the way. In this sense, it is significant that the trailhead in Yellowbrickroad ostensibly starts at the movie theater, and also ends there, as the entire movie seems to be a road constantly spiraling inward, toward…what? Insight? Madness? Chaos? Death? It could be read in a myriad of ways, which is an attribute many of the best films share. This theme of spiraling inward is also hinted at in the mention of the 1940 townsfolk carrying their records into the woods, a single line of dialogue by mapmaker Daryl explaining that the coordinates he’s getting seem to be spiraling inward toward an unknown center, and most obviously, by the soundtrack of spooky, 1940’s-era music and ear-piercing record scratches that almost become an antagonist of their own as they assault the characters with contextless noise that grows louder as the journey progresses toward an inevitable end.

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The most criticized aspect of the film by a mile was the ending, which many reviewers felt was inexplicable, but honestly, I thought the ending was perfect, and really the only ending it could have had, given its thematic thrust. The journey was always going to end where it began, just like in The Wizard of Oz, but in Yellowbrickroad, the insight gained by the sole survivor of the trek was far darker, almost nihilistic. This is no case of “everything I desired was right here all along,” but rather, “all of the worst things I dreaded about myself and the world are inside me, and everywhere, and inescapable.” Marry that to a profound disconnect between reality and fantasy, and a realization that to transcend one’s humdrum existence might just be equivalent to following an endlessly spiraling descent into a hell of one’s own making, and you’re left with quite a bleak filmgoing experience, and one that will stick with you and taunt you with its riddles for many days to come. Highly recommended.

Until next time, Goddess out.

First in a Possible Series: The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Why the Fuck Does David Lynch Freak Me Out So Much?

Yesterday, as I was indulging in that great American pastime of frittering my workday away on the internet, I suddenly and quite inexplicably became obsessed with reading various publications’ rankings of the top 100 horror films and scenes. Unlike a large majority of the commenters on these pieces, I don’t so much read these types of posts to quibble with the films that were chosen or get into a lather about ones that were left off; I am, rather, simply very interested in what films other people chose and why they felt the way they did about them. The list I liked the best, incidentally, was this one from TimeOut London that was ranked according to votes from various horror heavy-hitters. It is, in my opinion, a great, diverse list that pretty equitably spans all genres and eras of horror and even threw in a few curveballs and non-traditional choices. Besides that, the recaps of the films were in-depth, informed, and insightful.

Reading all these lists inspired me to do a similar thing on this blog, though frankly I think I will stick to just calling out particular scenes in horror films that stuck with me through the years, and try to analyze why they made such an impact on me. That’s not to say that I might not do a “Goddess’s Top 100 Horror Films of All Time” one of these days, but at the moment I have a lot of other projects pending and don’t have enough free time to rewatch all the films I’d like to feature just so I can remember specifics. So consider this the first in a series of however many of my favorite creepy movie scenes that I’d like to write about. 🙂

The scene I’m going to feature first was a no-brainer for me; it was the first one that popped into my head when I decided to do this series. I have always said (to myself, mostly) that many of the scariest scenes in film don’t even come from what would normally be considered horror films. For a long time, I thought I was pretty much alone in this opinion, but then, in all my horror-list wanderings, I came across retroCRUSH’s 100 Scariest Movie Scenes. And right there, at number one, was SWEET VINDICATION.

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Winkie’s. Fucking. Diner. *shudder*

If you have not seen David Lynch’s masterful 2001 mystery Mulholland Drive, kindly do yourself a favor and get on that shit tout suite. For real, I’ll wait. It’s a sinister layer cake of creepy-awesome that rewards multiple viewings, like a rich, nightmarish puzzle that taunts you with its dark, schizophrenic glamor.

The setup of the five-minute diner scene is mundane in the extreme. Minor characters Dan (Patrick Fischler) and Herb (Michael Cooke) are sitting in Winkie’s Diner in broad daylight. Dan is telling Herb about a recurring dream he’s had that took place in the very diner they’re sitting in. It all sounds fairly humdrum until Dan says that there is a man behind the diner. “He’s the one who’s doing it,” Dan says, though he doesn’t elaborate on what ‘it’ might be. “I can see him through the wall.” He then tells Herb that he hopes he never sees the man’s face outside of a dream, with the implication that the face is too horrible for him to describe. Dan looks sweaty and intense and apprehensive as he talks, haltingly. Later in the scene, Herb takes Dan outside in an attempt to show him that the man in his dream is not really back there, and this goes about as well as you’d expect.

PEEKABOO!

PEEKABOO!

What is it about this scene that gives me the heebie-jeebies every single time I watch it? It isn’t the most obvious “scare,” the sudden appearance of the nightmare man from behind the dumpster. That’s sort of freaky when it happens, in a jump-out-of-your-seat way, but it’s not particularly dread-inducing. No, the scariest part of the scene is everything leading up to that: Dan’s strangely rubbery facial expressions and lopsided nervous grins, the flat affect of his voice as he describes the dream, the way he seems to say a great deal without saying much at all. One particular moment that actually caused a chill to rocket up my spine was when Dan was saying that Herb had also made an appearance in the dream. “You’re standing right over there…by that counter.” The camera pans slowly over to the counter, at which no one is currently standing, then focuses back on Dan’s anxious face. “You’re in both dreams, and you’re scared.” A few minutes later, Herb goes to pay for their lunch, and thus actually is standing right where Dan saw him standing in the dream. The men share an extremely unsettling glance across the diner. Also rather nerve-wracking is the men’s walk out to the dumpster behind the diner. Every shot, every camera angle, every edit as they walk seems pointedly calculated to be as skin-crawlingly sinister as possible, but without being obvious or overtly frightening in any way. It’s a fantastic trick, and I wish I could figure out how Lynch so effortlessly achieved it.

The retroCRUSH rundown also pointed out that this scene should absolutely not be as eerie as it is, because Dan basically describes exactly what’s going to happen, and then it happens. Normally structuring a scene like that would only serve to take away any tension, but in this scene it’s precisely the opposite. There is an inevitability to the scene; both Dan and the viewer know that something bad is going to happen, but neither are able to prevent it, and the dread the viewer feels in Dan’s stead makes the scene, for me at least, very difficult to watch without looking away.

I am amazed that Lynch managed to film such an ominous scene out of elements that are anything but scary at first glance (other than the nightmare man’s horrible face, that is), but I’m even more amazed by the fact that he’s done it more than once. Lynch is a master at something I tend to call time displacement, for lack of a better term. He has filmed several scenes in which the line between reality and nightmare is blurred, of course, but he also seems to have a similar predilection for playing with overlapping timescales, characters being in two places at once, and that type of thing. In 2006’s Inland Empire, for example, the intensely freaky-looking Grace Zabriskie (as Visitor #1) points to an empty couch in Laura Dern’s house and tells her that if it was tomorrow, she would be sitting right. Over. There. And then suddenly it is tomorrow, and Laura Dern is sitting exactly where the old woman said she’d be sitting. There is also the famous scene from Lost Highway (1997), where a white-faced Robert Blake tells Bill Pullman that not only is he standing there talking to him, but at the same time, “I’m at your house right now.” Every single scene Lynch has filmed like this has freaked me right the hell out, and I can’t quite put my finger on why that might be. Perhaps because when done well, these scenes serve to undermine the fulcrum of reality and make the viewer feel completely adrift in a universe that makes no rational sense. Or maybe it’s the fact that Lynch, better than any other filmmaker in my opinion, is cursedly skilled at portraying the incongruity of dreams on film, so that we almost feel as though he’s directly tapped into our collective subconscious and forced us to look unflinchingly at what’s lurking there. Or it could be his consummate talent for utilizing slightly off-kilter facial expressions, camera shots, voice inflections, and background sounds to convey an unsettling mood. Whatever the reason, I suppose it just goes to show that in the right hands, traditional horror movie monsters and situations have nothing on a simple shot of the back of someone’s head, or a strangely intense glance, or a daylight stroll through a diner parking lot.